The Path of a Scientist

(Warning: long post ahead.  I didn’t realize it, but we talked a lot!)

Dr. Patek in the aquarium part of the lab. Image Source: Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography

So here’s the thing: I’ve been lucky to have numerous role models in my life, many of them female, ranging from my seniors to peers in the same grade as me. The problem is, every time I look up to someone, my ability to talk to them just goes down the drain. I stumble over words, trail off sentences and avert my eyes—more often than usual. So when I was assigned to interview Dr. Sheila Patek—a biologist who has spoken at a TED conference, defended the value of her research when politicians called it a “waste,” and also happens to be my PI—I freaked out big time. Fortunately, Dr. Patek is one of the friendliest people I’ve met at Duke. When I knocked on her office door she invited me to sit down with a smile, leaning back casually with her mug of tea. Even with the relaxed atmosphere I still stuttered my way through the interview. But in the end I learned a lot of interesting things about Dr. Patek, and also gained valuable insights into the nature of scientific research.

I was surprised to find out that Dr. Patek and I share a few similar experiences. For one thing, we first developed our love of the marine world by exploring it firsthand. While attending middle school in Japan, Dr. Patek’s class took a field trip to the island Miyake-jima. That was the first time Dr. Patek went snorkeling, and although everything appeared blurry without her glasses, the moving colors she saw underwater blew her away. As an avid scuba diver, I couldn’t agree with her more about how marine life can leave anyone in awe of the natural world. I also discovered that, like me, Dr. Patek has passions in both the sciences and the arts; and she too had to face the struggle of choosing between them career-wise. While I’m mainly interested in visual art and creative writing, Dr. Patek was hugely invested in orchestra during college. She loved playing the clarinet, and remarked during our interview that she could have actually continued down the path of a professional musician. However, during college she realized something about herself: while she worked hard in both her scientific and musical pursuits, she “couldn’t stand being beat up in music performance, but somehow it didn’t bother (her) in science.” She guessed that this might be because there’s something less personal about criticism in the sciences. Afterwards, she finally became set on being a scientist in her senior year. While I still hope to combine my artistic and scientific interests—for instance, through communication of science to the public—it was amazing to hear the story of someone who had once been in a position similar to mine, and hearing about her decision-making process provided insight into how I might make my own choices in the future.

We also talked at length about Dr. Patek’s development as a scientist. One big lesson I took away was that research involves a lot of hard work, tough decisions, and a bit of luck. While completing her postdoc at UC Berkeley, Dr. Patek initially aimed to study hearing in mantis shrimp. However, after a whole year of hard work, she realized that she wasn’t going to be able to answer her research question in time, and made the tough choice to switch studies. The turnover was definitely not an easy one. Dr. Patek’s next plan was to study the mantis shrimp’s strikes, however these ultra-fast movements could not be recorded by any of the university’s cameras. By utter chance, a BBC crew visited Berkeley around the time Dr. Patek was facing this dilemma, and were kind enough to rent out a ~$3000 high-speed video camera for her in exchange for filming her and other scientists doing research. It was only then that Dr. Patek was able to study the mind-blowing mechanism of the mantis shrimp’s strike. My jaw dropped when thinking about how important sheer luck was to Dr. Patek’s career trajectory; had the BBC crew not visited when they did, Dr. Patek herself admits that she would not be researching on mantis shrimp today. However, she also adds that she would’ve eventually found something else; and that reminded me that this luck was really only a bonus to all the labor Dr. Patek had already put in as a scientist. I’d like to think this adds weight to the idea that chance opportunities are great, but they’ll only really start arising once you’ve put in work yourself.

Finally, we also discussed Dr. Patek’s current work and life.  Surprisingly, one thing that my PI stressed to me was that research is a “ruthless” career. Obtaining grants and publishing papers is a highly competitive process, and many qualified people with PhDs aren’t able to succeed in a scientific career. The grants Dr. Patek receives are also the main thing keeping her lab running, so my PI spends a lot of her time writing grants. Dr. Patek also describes her job as “all-consuming,” as she often works all day and sometimes has to take work home with her. But at the same time, she notes that it grants her a degree of flexibility that most jobs don’t have. For instance, she’s able to attend her son’s kindergarten graduation at eleven in the morning, or be home at six for dinner everyday with her family, and do work later at night. She also says that it’s a huge privilege to be doing what she does: paving the way for new knowledge on subjects that she cares about, and working closely with others who have similar interests. And with regards to the job being “all-consuming,” she also notes that “sometimes the best things in life are like that.” Yes, research is a job that can demand total investment; but if it’s investment into something that you love, that you already have an “overwhelming fascination and passion” for, then this type of career can be pretty amazing. Through her voice and animated gestures, it’s very clear that Dr. Patek has this very passion she speaks of. I can’t help but feel in awe of how my PI balances the ups and downs of her career, and ultimately takes great joy and pride in what she does.

After half an hour, I finished the interview and thanked Dr. Patek for making time for me out of her busy schedule. We still ended up chatting about random things as we headed back to the lab.

I don’t know if this has gotten across already in my writing, but this interview was truly inspiring. I was genuinely surprised at the similarities Dr. Patek and I shared, and was amazed at the challenges she faces as part of her life as a researcher. Learning that someone I can relate to has experienced what she did, and made it to where she is now…that inspires hope in me that I can do the same, and has given me a greater awareness about how I may approach my own future. I’m honestly so glad I’ve been given the chance to work in her lab this summer!

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